When many people think of the term espionage, they may imagine secret agents stealing government secrets. In reality, espionage takes place in the world of business as well. Known as business espionage or industrial espionage, this crime involves companies or corporations using secretive tactics to obtain illegal access to trade secrets of their competitors. Commercial or business espionage can take place in a number of different ways.
One of the most common methods is for a company to hire someone to become an employee at a competing corporation in order to gather information or trade secrets. Espionage can also take the form of bribery acts—some companies will pay large sums of money to an employee of a competing firm to gain valuable business information.
Types of Business Espionage
Companies and corporations have been known to use a wide variety of techniques to obtain illegal access to the trade secrets of their competitors. Whatever tactic they may use, their actions constitute a federal criminal offense and can bring serious consequences. Some of the most commonly used business espionage tactics include:
- Informants: an informant is someone who is charged with the specific task of gathering sensitive data and reporting it back to the entity that hired them. In a business context, this could involve a corporation hiring an employee who will become employed at a rival company and then gather sensitive information. An informant could also be a person who is already employed at another company and is then approached and persuaded to pass along trade secrets.
- Extortion: At its most basic level, extortion is the use of threats, force or other means to coerce someone into divulging information, goods or services. In a business espionage case, this could take the form of an employee at one company being threatened, harassed, bullied or otherwise forced into providing secret information. Extortion for business purposes is a federal offense.
- Computer Espionage or Hacking: Computer technology has made business espionage even more complex. Computer experts may be hired by one corporation to hack into the secret files of a competitor to steal information. These hackers may offer their services to the highest bidder, or some may be bribed or extorted into providing their services.
In a world that has become dominated by global commerce, trade secrets are often the only way one company can realistically compete with another. As such, business espionage is taken very seriously by the federal government. According to the United States Code, a company that is found guilty of economic espionage may be fined up to $10 million or thrice “the value of the stolen trade secret.”